Young cougar among red desert rocks.
Book Cover of Cougar:The American Lion


Chapter Five - Cougars and Humans

Cougars tread a path that winds through the mythic and earthly worlds of Native American cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. In the mythic world, the puma was the protector of the cosmos.(1) The Zui of New Mexico said that the ancient ones wanted the world to be guarded by those keen of sight and scent,(2) and the puma was the sentinel of the north.(3, 4, 5) The Miwoks of California described the cougar as the ideal hunter, strong and brave, chief among the animals.(6) The Apaches and Hualapais of Arizona regarded the cats wailing as an omen of death.(7) In one Navajo legend, the hero is critically wounded when witch objects are shot into his body. It is the puma who extracts these missiles of death, saving the hero's life. The Navajo also believed the puma benefited them by leaving the greater portion of their kills for the people to eat.(8) However, not everyone viewed the cougar with reverence the Papago envisioned the lion as a flesh-eating monster.(9)

In the earthly world, many cultures believed they could imbue themselves with the pumas hunting prowess through the use of societies or fetishes. A society is a group within a tribe, usually of men, bearing a particular animal is their totem and source of power.(1) The Caiyek (Cougar Society) of Zia Pueblo in New Mexico existed to assist hunters in the chase. Members of the Caivek believed that a supernatural ability such as successful hunting was given to each species of animal by the Powers.(10) At Jemez Pueblo, the Cougar Society provided deer and rabbit.(11) The cougars skill as a hunter could also be extended to warfare.(1) Membership in the Opi, a prestigious warrior society of Chchiti Pueblo, could only be obtained by killing an enemy in battle or by killing the great hunter--the puma.(10)

In some cultures, fetishes are important in transferring supernatural powers to humans. A fetish is a material object such as a small carving, believed to contain or manifest specific power or powers. The Hopi and Zui believed that fetishes were once actual beings and Zui hunters carried small stone-carved mountain lion when they went deer hunting. The figure was fed every day, and upon the hunters return, blood of the quarry was smeared on the muzzle of the fetish. At San Felipe Pueblo, mountain lion fetishes were used before a buffalo or deer hunt.(1)

The cougar was also believed to possess great magical and medicinal power. Aztec physicians prescribed pricking the breast of sick tribesmen with the sharpened bone of a puma to ward off death. Some tribes drove away illness by Jangling dried cougar paws over a sick individuals head. Cougar gall was administered in extreme illness to increase the power of the ailing person to resist the disease, and ultimately to instill the cats ferocious fighting spirit.(7) Certain warriors tied lion paws and muzzle hair to their bandoleers before going into war,(11) and the Zia Cougar Society used leggings and effigies made of puma hide in certain rites.(12)

The pervasive influence of the cougar can also be found in Native American art and architecture. The ancient Peruvian city of Cuzco was laid out in the outline of a puma and skilled artisans fashioned golden puma figurines.(13) A six-inch wooden statuette, unearthed on Marco Island, Florida, in 1895, bore the distinctive form of a living panther, and was believed to date between A.D. 1400 and A.D. 1500, when the area was occupied by the Calusa.(14)

In contrast to the reverence shown by many early cultures, Inca rulers and their subjects hunted the puma as game at the height of their civilization in ancient Peru.(7) Even so, the cat was rarely hunted for its meat. Stalking and killing a cougar, using only a spear or bow and arrow, required beating the master hunter at its own game. Few hunters possessed such skillbear and deer no doubt proved far easier quarry.(1)

The impact of early cultures on mountain lion populations was probably minor, even though some tribes regularly killed pumas in order to gain entrance to a warrior society or to obtain materials for ceremonial or magical use. Acuff gives three reasons for this: One, the animal was difficult to hunt. Two, the puma was revered, and one does not kill a sacred animal wantonly. [Three], human population densities were low enough that such hunting had minimal impact.(1)

To native people whose survival depended on consistently procuring adequate food, the ability of the lion to kill game with apparent ease was enormously respected, and subsequent deification of the puma is not surprising.(1) The big cat enjoyed the awe and respect of native people who shared the forests, mountains, and deserts. But in the 14th century, when the first Europeans reached the Americas, their perspective of the cougar was to be quite different.

Early explorers and settlers were driven by a desire for wealth, glory, adventure, and a tremendous religious fervor. Many of these people came from countries that were heavily settled and relatively predator-free. The Christian obsession with morality greatly influenced the Europeans view of native cultures and the wilderness that greeted their arrival. They saw it as their moral duty to civilize not only the savages but the land itself. There was no place for predators in such a world.

The cougar was not only immoral, but a competitor that vied for the abundant game of the New World and a threat to domestic livestock. As early as the 1500s; Jesuit priests in southern California were offering natives one bull for every cougar killed. In 1684, Connecticut offered a bounty of twenty shillings apiece for the killing of catamounts, the local name for the cougar. Massachusetts was paying bounties on cougars in 1742.(14) Where Native Americans offered the big cat respect, the new European immigrants felt only fear and loathing. By imposing human ethics upon wild predators it was easy to make the step from viewing them as competitors to viewing them as enemies.(15) Such simplistic thinking separated animals into two categories: beneficial (edible wild game and livestock) and injurious (all other mammals and birds).

Some native individuals did not completely acquiesce to this new vision of the sacred cougar. The Indians of peninsular California refused to kill or disturb the puma, even at the insistence of the Jesuit priests; it seems the uneaten portion of the cats kill had long been an important source of food for these people.(7) In the early 1900s, western author Zane Grey wrote of an incident in Arizona in which where a Navajo guide refused to participate in a mountain lion hunt because that would have been tantamount to hunting a deity.(16)

From 1500 to 1900, little factual information was accumulated about the cougar. In this vacuum, the outrageous was accepted as true. Hunters and authors spun tales of a supernatural creature, more terrifying than in any of the Indian myths. Recurring themes of cowardice, gluttony, brutishness, sneakiness, and wantonness dominate. White hunters projected themselves as courageous heroes destroying an evil creature that embodied traits that were considered human vices. The white man created his own mythic wandone in which the cougar was assigned malevolent attributes in order to justify his real-world extermination.(1)

As colonization spread west, the great hardwood forests of the Northeast were cleared and subdivided, effectively destroying the cougars habitat. Alexander Crowell killed the last panther in Vermont in 1881,(17) and the last panther in Pennsylvania was shot in 1891.(18) By 1900 the cougar was effectively exterminated east of the Mississippi. As domestic cattle and sheep were released across the open plains of the West many of the native bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep were displaced.(15) Because cougars found livestock increasingly available and easy to kill, it took an occasional sheep, goat, or cow. Such depredation, consistently exaggerated by stockmen, did little to enhance the cougars public image. Prevailing opinion at the turn of the century was best summed up by Theodore Roosevelt when he described the cougar during a hunt as ...the big horse-killing cat, the destroyer of the deer, the lord of stealthy murder, facing his doom with a heart both craven and cruel... (19) Stockmen agreed, and declared war.

In early 1990, several major national magazines and newspapers carried the grisly photograph of 11 severed mountain lion heads stacked under a tree. The photograph was taken anonymously by an angry Arizona state wildlife employee. The heads represented only one-fourth of the 44 lions killed in Arizona in 1989 by professional hunters working for the U.S. Department of Agricultures notorious Animal Damage Control (ADC) program.(20)

The U.S. Government entered the business of exterminating wild animals (many of them on public lands) in 1915, when western stockmen pressured Congress to appropriate $125,000 to wipe out wolves and coyotes and supposedly save beef for our allies in World War I.(21, 22) The U.S. Biological Survey, the predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was charged with the responsibility of hiring hunters and trappers to do the job. But it was the passage of the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 that gave birth to ADC and provided the money and authority to expand the destruction of mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, and other animals injurious to agriculture, horticulture, forestry, husbandry, game, or domestic animals, or that carried disease. (21)

Between 1937 and 1970, federal employees of Animal Damage Control (ADC), derisively branded All Dead Critters by some of their critics, killed 7,255 cougars; 23,830 bears; 477,104 bobcats; 50,283 red wolves; 1,744 lobo wolves; 2,823,000 coyotes; and millions of other animals. After 1970, control was focused primarily on cougars, coyotes, and bobcats, because the grizzly bear and wolves were placed on the endangered species list.(23)

Federal predator control efforts are augmented by state hunters and bounty programs. Arizona originally considered the cougar an undesirable predator, and 2,400 were killed between 1918 and 1947. Efforts to eliminate the cat were accelerated in 1947 when the state began to offer a bounty varying from $50 to $100 per lion; between 1947 and 1969, over 5,400 cougars were slaughtered in Arizona.(24) Federal, state, and private hunters killed 1,775 pumas in Colorado between 1916 and 1965. (25) California paid out bounties on 12,452 cougars killed between 1907 and 1963, when the program was eliminated by the state legislature.

A good portion of this grisly total was due to the efforts of Jay Bruce, Californias official lion-hunter from 1914 to 1942, (1) credited with killing almost 700 cats.(18) British Columbia lays claim to the greatest carnage, with 16,633 cats slaughtered between 1910 and 1955,(26) The bounty on cougar in British Columbia continued from 1910 to 1957; during that time the total kill probably exceeded 20,000 animals.(27) According to statistics compiled by Ronald

Nowak of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a minimum of 66,665 cougars were killed within states and provinces between 1907 and 1978.(26)

The most common methods used to control cougars were poison, trapping, and hunting with dogs.(28) At the turn of the century, predator control consisted of guarding livestock using people or dogs, as well as leghold traps, snares, and guns. Poisons were not introduced into wide use until the l930s. The predator control arsenal contained such deadly elements as thallium sulfate, strychnine, and cyanide. The notorious poison, sodium monoflouracetate, commonly known as Compound 1080, appeared in the late 194Os. It was injected into bait carcasses, which were then transported to bait stations by vehicle or dropped from the air. Poisoned bait stations killed coyotes, bears, and eagles by the thousands. In 1972, President Nixon issued an executive order banning the use of poisons to kill predators on public lands, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disallowed the registration of such toxicants. Presidents Ford and Carter agreed with the ban, but President Reagan subsequently rescinded the original executive order, and EPA once again began registering 1080 for use in the early 1980s.(23) Today, 1080 toxic collars, which are fastened around the necks of sheep, are used to prevent attacks in Texas, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Idaho. ADC also uses strychnine for underground rodent control.(29)

Due to the cougars low density and preference for killing its own prey, poisons were generally ineffective in eradicating it. Poisoning of lion-killed carcasses proved the most effective technique, though the kills are difficult to find. Young transient cats are probably most susceptible to poisons because of their tendency to eat unusual prey or foods.(28)

Steel-jawed, leghold traps and snares are still used today in cougar control programs though, like poisons, they are of limited effect. The cats do not respond well to scented bait traps, so hunters use what are called blind sets: unscented and camouflaged traps set in canyon bottoms and along rims in areas cougars are known to travel. Foothold snares can also be baited or unbaited. Some trappers even use catnip with some success. The traps or snares are then checked on a regular basis and, if a cat is found in one, it is shot. The biggest limitations to traps and snares are the time, expense, and labor necessary to make and maintain adequate sets.(28) Both poisoning and trapping are nonselective: many animals not specifically targeted by control efforts such as hawks, eagles, badgers, foxes, deer, Javelina, livestock, and domestic dogs have died in traps and snares set for other predators.

Today, hunting cougars with dogs is the most frequently used capture method, both by predator control agents and sport hunters. In 1988, the majority of cougars killed by ADC agents in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah were tracked down with hunting dogs.(30) Specially trained hounds are used to track, then chase the big cats. Though a dog is no match for a cougar in speed or combat, the cats seem to consistently retreat from barking dogs. If tracking conditions are good, such as after a light snowfall, and the dogs pick up a fresh scent, the cat is no match for the hounds endurance and will quickly seek refuge in a tree. While in the false safety of the tree, the cougar is then shot.

Until 1986, ADC was a branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Following the recommendation of a 1970 presidential commission that the predator policies should be eliminated or reduced on public lands,(21) and, due to a growing conservation ethic during the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the ADC was greatly reduced. Finally, western members of Congress, under the prodding of disgruntled stockmen, succeeded in getting ADC transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the program rebounded, The toll in 1989 included 237 cougars, 236 black bears, 80 gray wolves, 1,220 bobcats, 7,158 foxes, and 86,502 coyotes, 10,000 more than in 1988.(22)

Too frequently, the fiscal logic of ADC defies reason, and the ADC program is being increasingly criticized because of its enormous expense and lack of effectiveness. As Harley Shaw states, ... information available on lion population biology suggests strongly that control of lions is unlikely to occur and [is] definitely not cost efficient.(28) In 1990 the ADC program spent $29.4 million in federal dollars$3.8 million more than 1989plus about $15 million in state funds to destroy vast numbers of mammals and birds   considered predators or pests. In 1988, California spent $3.2 million to kill 32,368 mammals about $100 for each animal. The amount of damage the animals caused to livestock, poultry, and crops was placed at $1.4 million. It cost twice as much to destroy the predators (41 cougars among them) than if the ranchers and farmers had been compensated for their losses.(20)

The killing of livestock (depredation) still fuels the political fires that advocate the killing of cougars through predator-control programs and hunting. Stockmen, biologists, and conservationists consistently cross swords over one question: How much impact do cougars have on livestock operations?

The majority of depredation permits issued to kill mountain lions are for attacks on sheep and cattle, Taking California as an example, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that in 1988 there were 4,600,000 cattle and calves (beef and dairy) in California and 800,000 sheep (sheep and lambs). During the same year the California Department of Fish and Game issued only 102 depredation permits for attacks on cattle, calves, sheep, and lambs.(31) In other states the situation is similar. Wain Evans states that, Verified depredations affect less than 1 percent of New Mexico ranchers each year.(32) Suminski reports that in Nevada, the estimated annual losses of sheep to cougars averaged 0.29 percent.(33) Balancing these numbers, Fred Lindzey emphasizes that although depredation is a small problem industry-wide, local ranchers can be significantly affected.(34)

Depredation statistics indicate that cougars cause fewer livestock deaths than do other species, such as domestic dogs. Between June 1986 and June 1987, ADC information for 41 California counties showed that cougars were responsible for 5 percent of all sheep and lambs lost to predators, while domestic dogs caused 11 percent of sheep deaths and coyotes 78 percent of deaths.(35) In southwestern Utah, coyotes caused 92 percent of sheep losses and cougars were responsible for 7 percent.(36)

New evidence suggests that while transient lions are more likely to kill unusual prey, healthy adult lions do kill livestock.
It was commonly assumed that most depredating lions were transients recently on their own or old lions displaced from their home range or in poor physical condition. New evidence suggests that while transient lions are more likely to kill unusual prey, healthy adult lions do kill livestock. Hopkins found this to be the case in the Diablo Mountains of California(37) and, according to a questionnaire submitted to participants in the Second Mountain Lion Workshop, adult male and female cougars were implicated in most depredation incidents.(36)

While to humans, cattle are inappropriate prey for a mountain lion, to the opportunistic hunter, killing available and vulnerable prey, whether deer or cattle, is how the cat stays alive. In that context killing livestock is perfectly normal cougar behavior. Cougars will kill most species of domestic livestock, though cattle and sheep are common prey. Arizona and New Mexico suffer the most frequent losses of cattle, with incidences generally decreasing northward through the cats range. This pattern may be largely due to ranching practices, with cattle and calf losses greatest in areas where they are born in cougar habitat.(38) However, Susan de Treville points out that cattle and lions were plentiful throughout her study area in the Big Sur region of California, yet there was little depredation, except for a few goats killed by an elderly male lion.(39) Lindzey also emphasizes that no one has demonstrated a relationship between lion density and depredation.(34) Sheep losses occur anywhere they are grazed in cougar habitat, but are greatest in the summer when the sheep are dispersed on open range. During the winter, sheep are moved to lower ground and often to fenced-in pastures.(40, 41) Hopkins points out that if mountain lions were completely neutral in the prey they select, livestock would be killed in proportion to how frequently they occur in the cats home range. Evidence shows that cattle and sheep are infrequent prey, indicating lions generally avoid them.(42)

Most cattle killed by cougars are calves less than one year old and weigh less than 200 pounds. Though they have been known to kill cows up to 800 pounds, experts feel kills in excess of 300400 pounds are unusual.(41)

Sheep of all age classes are killed by cougars, although lambs seem to be taken more often if they are present.(36) Cougars will kill more than one sheep in a single incident, though it will only feed on one or two. A lion in Nevada once killed 59 sheep (mostly lambs) in one attack.(33) Such occurrences of surplus killing are easily interpreted as evidence that the cougar is a bloodthirsty predator that enjoys killing. This may be true: to enjoy killing is probably necessary to survive. But like so much of the cats behavior, it is not likely to be that simple.

Why does surplus killing occur? It is partly because the drive to kill an animal outweighs the need to eat it,(43) and because domestic livestock cannot or will not escape. Experiments have shown that both hungry and satiated felines continued to kill prey as long as it was presented rather than eat those already killed,(43) To a cougar, multiple kills are an efficient way to procure a lot of food in a short period of time, and are wasteful only in an artificial captive situation where prey animals are kept at very high densities and are unable to escape.(44) Guggisberg explains that the cats urge to pounce upon a victim is constantly being reactivated by the penned-in animals helplessly milling around it. The situation it finds itself in is quite abnormal, and so, of course, is the pumas reaction. It would never be able to perform a massacre of this kind among the wild animals which form its natural prey, for they take flight the moment one of a herd has been struck down.(45)

Traditionally, there have been two approaches to cougar depredation: kill the problem lion or reduce the lion population in areas where attacks occur.(41) Most states (including California) and provinces have laws that enable livestock owners to protect their animals. Depredating lions can be destroyed if caught in the act of attacking livestock, or they can be captured and killed if the depredation incident can be verified.

Cougar population reduction is usually attempted through sport hunting hunters are directed to specific areas experiencing livestock losses. Such general population reductions are usually ineffective. Harley Shaw advises that in good lion habitat, attempts to control lions at any feasible level will probably accomplish nothing.(28) The complete elimination of cougars from problem regions or zones has been tried three times in New Mexico twice to protect domestic sheep and once to protect wild sheep. None of these removals resulted in a reduction of depredation.(32) In areas where grazing is seasonal, sport hunters generally remove cougars in the winter, but livestock are not moved to these areas until summer. This provides ample time for new transient cougars to move into the area and take up residence in the hunter-created vacuum, resulting in a cougar population equal to or greater than the original population.(41) If killing resident cougars in a population results in an increase of transients, and transients are more prone to take unusual prey than resident cats, it is likely that aggressively hunting the cats could actually increase depredation.

Nonlethal predator control methods are available that reduce depredation. One of the most effective ways is to change livestock management practices. Economic conditions have led some ranchers to shift from sheep operations to cattle operations. In areas experiencing heavy losses to cougars, cattle ranchers have changed from cow-calf to steer operations.(36) Lindzey advises, Pasturing livestock, primarily sheep, in more open areas and avoiding timbered areas particularly those in steep, broken terrain should reduce livestock losses to cougars.(46) For small farms raising sheep and goats, electric fences have proven effective against predators, including coyotes.(47, 48) Keeping sheep more tightly herded reduces predation, but it also increases range deterioration.(36) Some sheep operations have experimented with guard dogs; these breeds are different from herding dogs and include large types such as Great Pyrenees and the Hungarian Komondor. Dogs raised with sheep and properly trained offer continual livestock protection that adapts to changes in predator behavior.(48, 49) However, guard dogs have proven less effective where sheep herds are scattered thinly over the range.(36)

Two states, Colorado and Wyoming, pay ranchers compensation for cougar depredation. The lion was classified as a game animal in Colorado in 1965 and the Division of Wildlife (DOW) became liable for damages at that time. Although the original legislation was contested, it was upheld by the courts;(36) Colorado paid $44,959 in compensation for livestock losses between 1990 and 1991, according to Cathy Moser of the DOWs Terrestrial Section.

John Talbott, Assistant Chief Game Warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), explains that his department is responsible for damage to domestic livestock by trophy game animals, and that the cougar became a game animal in 1981. Most of Wyomings losses are sheep rather than cattle, and not surprisingly, the biggest point of contention between state wildlife officials and ranchers is the magnitude of such losses. WGFD rarely pays for the entire loss. No compensation is allowed in either state if a landowner does not permit hunting on his property.

Talbott believes Wyomings compensation program increases tolerance of the cougars and helps ranchers view them as a bona fide wildlife resource that people like to see out there. Both he and Moser think the programs increase cooperation between property owners and the states, Talbort further points out that the expense of compensation programs is not just in the money paid to ranchers. There are also the substantial costs of monitoring both sheep and lions, verifying losses, negotiating compensation, and administrative time. On the negative side of the issue is the question of whether a public agency managing a public resource, frequently on public land, should be reimbursing ranchers for losses of private property. 

The 1960s brought a new perspective on predators and a limited degree of protection for the cougar as state legislatures and wildlife managers in most of the western states shifted the big cats official status from injurious predator to game animal. Nevada reclassified the cougar as a game animal in 1965; Washington did so in 1966, followed by Utah in 1967 and California in 1969. All other western states followed suit. Two Canadian provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, did likewise. California set a new precedent in 1990 when residents passed a referendum giving the cougar complete protection from sport hunting (Proposition 117). At the other extreme is Texas, where the lion is still considered a varmint and receives no protection from the state whatsoever.(50)

California set a new precedent in 1990 when residents passed a referendum giving the cougar complete protection from sport hunting (Proposition 117).

Hunting seasons vary in length from year-round to one month, with bag limits usually 1 cougar per season per person. Most states require a permit. Northern states usually set their seasons in late fall and winter, when snow provides the best conditions for tracking with dogs. Some states time their hunting seasons so they do not conflict with other big-game seasons and to reduce conflicts between cougar hunters and their dogs and people hunting deer and elk. Other states time seasons to avoid cougar birth peaks. This is thought to provide a measure of protection for small, vulnerable kittens and presumably reduces the number of young kittens orphaned when their mothers are killed (more on this later), Texas and Oregon also allow trapping as a method of sport harvest.(41)

A number of states offer special pursuit-only seasons. During pursuit-only seasons, hunters are allowed to chase and tree cats, but not to kill them. This provides a way for hunters to train and condition their dogs and is also used by wildlife photographers to get a picture of this elusive animal in the wild; however, some experts point out that cougars can still be injured or killed during such seasons. Lindzey explains: Permanent physical damage to a mountain lion may result from prolonged or frequent chases. Also, small kittens are as vulnerable to being killed by dogs during these seasons as they are during regular sport-hunting seasons.(41)

Successful cougar hunting requires the use of specially trained tracking hounds and sometimes involves several days spent trailing the elusive cats through miles of rugged terrain. Since few hunters are willing to make such an investment in time or effort to train dogs, they usually employ the services of a hunting guide. For a fee of $1,500 to $5,000, the guide supplies the food, lodging, hounds, horses, four-wheel-drive truck, and familiarity with the local terrain. Some hunting guides use CB radios, walkie talkies, and fit their hounds with special radio collars, which allow the guide and hunter to radio track the hounds while the hounds trail the cougar. The radio collars frequently contain a switch that is triggered when the dog tips its head back for an extended period, indicating that a cougar has been treed.

While most hunting guides run legitimate operations, the expense of long pursuits and the impatience of clients to bag a trophy cat entice some guides to provide a higher level of convenience in the form of will-call (as in, When we have your cougar treed, we will call you) or shootout (as in, All you have to do is shoot it out of the tree) hunts.(50) The guide puts a list of clients in his pocket, then heads out into the woods to find and track a cougar. Once he has a cat treed he radios the client or leaves the cat under the watchful eye of a helper and drives to the nearest telephone. The client then flies and drives to the location of the treed cougar to collect his trophy. As a result, cougars remain up in the tree for days at a time, under a death watch. If it jumps from the tree it is simply treed again, until the client arrives. (Bears are also frequent victims of will-call hunts.) Although keeping a cougar in a tree overnight does violate some state laws that prohibit hunting at night, this form of hunting is not illegal. Many question the morality of these will-call hunts, though. Bill Powers, coordinator of Arizona's Operation Game Thief silent-witness program, says Id guess that around 30 percent of the guided hunts in Arizona are will-call hunts, and that's probably conservative.(50)

Cougar hunting is growing in popularity. In those states that allow lion hunting, the number of permits has risen steadily over the last decade. Permit sales have more than doubled in Utah during the past ten years, with little or no increase in the number of lions killed.(46) Utah charges state residents only $12 for a license, plus a $27 lion permit fee, Nonresidents must pay $40 for the license, and $252 for a lion permit. A mountain lion hunting license in Colorado costs $30 for a resident and $250 for a nonresident. Revenues from license and tag sales rarely cover the costs of cougar research and management programs. Most of the money to be made from cougar hunting goes to guides, with local economies probably receiving a portion of the revenue.(41)

With so much time, energy, and money expended on cougar hunting, one question eventually presents itself: What impact does hunting have on mountain lion populations? Its a simple enough question, but asking it sparks immediate debate between hunters, anti-hunters, and non-hunters. Unfortunately, such debates generate more heat than light, and when these factions turn to wildlife biologists, no simple answers are available. Surprisingly little effort has been devoted to gaining an understanding of how sport hunting affects cougar populations.(46) (For updated information, see MLFs 2006 study on the affects of cougar sport hunting in MLFs Library.)

Many hunters, wildlife managers, and biologists insist the hunting of cougars necessary to keep cougar populations healthy, prevent overpopulation, and protect deer herds. None of these arguments is based on sound biology. The primary justification recreational hunting in contemporary society is based on notion that wildlife populations produce a harvestable surplus of individuals,(51) and that removal of this surplus benefits the population as a whole by reducing competition. For example, by killing a portion of a mule deer herd there is less competition for forage within the remaining herd, resulting in less starvation. Thus, the initial deaths due hunting compensate for, or reduce other forms of natural mortality such as starvation. Biologists such as Paul Errington believe each species population has surplus individuals whose death is assured, regardless of the literal cause of death. Whether the surplus individuals die by starvation, predation, or hunting makes no difference, and advocates of this compensatory-mortality theory view hunting as a substitute form of predation.(52)

While most recreational hunting programs are based on this theory of harvesting the surplus, and a significant body of research supports it, many of the studies were conducted on species such as deer, muskrats, and quail, animals that exist in large numbers and exhibit large population fluctuations. It may be more difficult to apply such reasoning to pumas, low-density predators whose populations appear to fluctuate very little and whose population dynamics are poorly understood.

Hunting cougars probably never completely compensates for natural mortality, and in some cases may even add to it. Lindzey and his colleagues found this to be the case while studying survival rates of mountain lions in southern Utah. Hunting mortality will not be fully compensated for [emphasis added] by a reduction in other sources of mortality. Intraspecific killings [fighting] and debilitating injuries resulting from attempts to capture prey will occur even in populations where densities are reduced by hunting. The degree to which hunting is additive [emphasis added] to other forms of mortality needs to be identified....(53)

Sport hunting advocates point to the evidence that cougar populations appear to tolerate tremendously high levels of hunting mortality and still recover. Kerry Murphy monitored the response of a small population of western Montana lions to heavy sport hunting. He concluded that over 50 percent of the resident adults in the area were killed, but were replaced by young adults raised in the area or transients immigrating from surrounding areas.(54) David Ashman and his coworkers in Nevada believe that even under removal of 30 to 50 percent of lion populations, the cats are capable of rapidly replacing annual losses.(55) While these examples certainly testify to the pumas resilience, they tell little about the effect of hunting on the cats intricate population dynamics.

Another study in southern Utah indicates that, when hunting mortality is combined with high natural mortality, cougars may not be so resilient. Biologists simulated a cougar hunt by removing 27 percent of the cats from a population, Seven lions were placed in captivity or transported out of the study area the first year, while another three died of natural causes the following year. By the second year the population had failed to recover to its pre-removal level. The investigators concluded that Failure of the population to recover to pre-removal level two years later and its inability to replace one of three resident adults that died the second year, suggests the population would not have recovered as quickly from a second years harvest of similar intensity. The effect of hunting on cougar populations will depend both on level of harvest and sex and age of cougars removed; populations will be most sensitive to loss of resident adult females.(56)

John Laundre and Donald Streubal, who are studying cougar ecology and behavior in Idaho, wonder about the effect of hunting on kitten mortality. The fact that males kill kittens, [has been] documented in earlier studies as well as ours. According to evolutionary theory, males would not kill their own kittens, writes Streubel.(57) Therefore, if hunting selects males from the population, new males would be more frequently moving into new home [ranges] and thus increasing chances of non-relatedness with resident kittens. This would seem to increase the mortality of kittens.

Most states prohibit killing females with kittens or spotted kittens. However, it may be difficult for hunters to differentiate females with kittens from other mountain lions because young are often not with their mothers. Biologist Dan Barnhurst observed that the tracks of newborn to 6-month-old kittens were found with their mothers only 19 percent of the time, while tracks of 7-to-12-month old kittens were found with their mothers tracks 43 percent of the time. Tracks are the sign most used by hunters, but even if a hunter wished to comply with the laws and avoid killing spotted kittens or females with kittens, 80 percent of the time he would have no way of knowing that the female has kittens.(58)

Barnhurst also examined the vulnerability of cougars to hunting. For kittens less than six months old, being orphaned is probably the main source of mortality in heavily hunted populations. A second source of hunting-related kitten mortality is that of kittens being killed by dogs. The risk of this is greatest for kittens less than three months old, because the mother must return frequently to the den to nurse them, The tracks she leaves will eventually lead dogs to the kittens, Since the kittens are too young to climb trees or outrun the dogs, they may be caught on the ground and killed before the hunter is aware of their presence.(58) This situation emphasizes why even pursuit-only seasons can result in lions being killed.

Unfortunately, the current sport hunting season in many states begins in the fall and it is probable that in some areas, cub mortality from maulings and orphaning is as significant as adult harvest [emphasis added], writes Thomas Hemker and his colleagues. The degree that hunting and non-hunting deaths compensate for each other is not clear, although it seems that causes of natural mortality are at least partially independent of hunting. Consequently, it seems probable that cub survival would be lower in hunted populations where either sex of adult cougars may be removed.(59)

Experts hope that some better answers to these perplexing hunting questions will be provided by a 1O-year research study currently underway in the San Andres Mountains of southern New Mexico. Because the mountains lie within the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range, cougar hunting has been prohibited. It will be the first long-term intensive study of un-hunted cougars in a desert environment. Biologists Kenney Logan, Linda Sweanor, and Frank Smith of the Wildlife Research Institute in Moscow, Idaho, are manipulating the resident lion population by removing a portion of the cats to simulate an overharvest. After studying the general ecology of the lion population for five years, they removed 70 percent of the lions (13 adults and sub-adults) from the southern one-third of the San Andres Range. The cats were then translocated to an area in northern New Mexico, where another biologist will monitor their activity. Logan says the project has four objectives:

  1. To determine the effects of the removal on lion population dynamics. This includes the immigration of transients, emigration (dispersal) of kittens, changes in the behavior of the lions toward each other, and general distribution and movement of the lions in the study area.

  2. To determine the effects of the removal on lion social organization. This includes changes in the ratio of males to females, changes in the age classes of lions (residents, transients, and kittens), or shifts in home range size and overlap.

  3. To determine the effects of lion removal on the survival of desert mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus crookeri) and desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicana), which the lions prey on in the San Andres.

  4. To monitor the behavior of the translocated mountain lions. Scheduled for completion in 1995, the project is a cooperative effort between the New Mexico Department of Fish Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Sands Missile Range.(60) (For updated information, see a summary of the Logan/Sweanor study in MLFs Library)

Existing research provides little evidence that sport hunting benefits cougar populations by keeping them healthy. As to whether lions overpopulate or devastate herds, studies indicate that the cats social behavior generally keeps their numbers in check(28, 61) and that their impact on healthy deer populations is thought to be minimal. Nor does hunting mountain lions reduce incidents of depredation.(36) Mountain lion sport hunting exists today primarily to provide a recreational experience for hunters want to bag a trophy.

One fact is certain, however: 2,176 cougars died at the hands of hunters in western North America in 1990. Idaho lead the pack with 350 lions killed, followed by Alberta 254, and Montana at 228. Sport hunting is still the greatest known cause of death in cougars. (For more information see MLFs reports on mountain lion mortalities in MLFs Library.)

November 16, 1990, state and federal authorities converged on a ranch near Lockwood, California. What they were the skulls, heads, and hides of mountain lions, tigers, spotted leopards, black leopards, and jaguars remnants of illegal hunts conducted by the owners, Floyd and Dawn Patterson.(63) Big game hunters paid the Pattersons up to $3,500 for the privilege shooting the big cats and taking their stuffed carcasses as trophies. Most of the animals were thought to been surplus zoo animals and many were simply shot in the stock trailer they were delivered in. One cat was dragged out with a lasso around its neck and shot just outside the door.(64) The Pattersons were tried and convicted on 42 counts of violating state wildlife laws.(65) Federal agents are still investigating the crimes and may yet file additional charges, which carry even more severe penalties.

The effect of poaching on cougar populations in North America is unknown.
The effect of poaching on cougar populations in North America is unknown, but according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), trade in illegal animal parts is a $200 million a year business, and growing, a 100 percent increase since 1980. John Turner, FWS Director, says, Our wildlife is under siege.(66) The international trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal, is a $5 billion-a-year business, and the United States is the largest consumer, accounting for $1 billion of the revenue annually.(67)

Illegally trapped cougars and endangered jaguars are purchased by unscrupulous outfitters for hunters willing to pay big trophy fees.(68) Cougars and bighorns are killed for their hides and heads. Bear gall bladders are sold as aphrodisiacs and their jaws, teeth and claws for jewelry. Elk and deer are killed and their hides, meat, and antlers sold. Major purchasers of poached goods are Asian medicine shops and markets. In the Orient, animal parts such as antlers and bear and cougar gall bladders are believed to have strong curative powers.

No longer simply an occasional deer taken out of season or a couple of fish over the limit, the age of large-scale commercial poaching has arrived. Skilled, organized, and well-equipped teams of poachers are decimating our nations wildlife and reaping obscene profits in the process. According to Larry Farnsworth, commercial poaching is a nationwide problem of a considerable magnitude. The data ... indicates that commercial poaching is one of the most underreported crimes in the country. Farnsworth estimated the minimum value of the illegal sale of wildlife at $175,100,773 and feels this number is extremely low.(69)

National parks, once seen as refuges, are becoming the killing fields of our wildlife. Obsessed trophy hunters in search of the biggest prizes are slipping into parks to shoot mountain lions, elk, deer, grizzlies, and bighorn sheep. Their reward is an entry in a record book, wall mounts, pictures in albums, and quick profits.(68) Black bears are slaughtered by the hundreds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park; hunters in Alaska's Denali National Park use small airplanes to gun down entire packs of wolves for their valuable pelts; poachers in Rocky Mountain National Park target bighorn sheep, deer, and elk. Rangers in Alaska consider illegal trophy hunting their worst problem.(67)

Poaching is considered by some experts to be less of a threat to cougars due to the difficulty of hunting lions without dogs and the low value of the pelt; however, this may be changing. In Los Angeles, a Korean buyer placed orders for 300 bear paws, 14 bear gall bladders, and 15 cougar gall bladders.(70) The California Department of Fish and Game reports there were 43 known cougars illegally killed between 1984 and 1990. In 1988, the Washington Department of Game states that of the 121 cougars killed in the state, 32 of them were illegal.(30) With bear gall bladders going for $540 per ounce and a record-sized bighorn sheep head worth $50,000, the incentive to poach is high. It is also important to note that cougar gall bladders are visually indistinguishable from bear gall bladders.

Heavy poaching of deer herds can have indirect impacts on cougars by removing potential prey. Based on information provided by California, Oregon, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin, roughly one-half or more of some fish and game species that are taken each year might be taken illegally by poachers. California Department of Fish and Game estimates, for example, that of the approximately 160,000 deer taken in California in 1984, roughly 100,000, or 62 percent were killed illegally.(71)

Poachers face little risk of being caught. There are only 7,200 state game wardens and fewer than 200 federal wildlife agents nationwide, to enforce the myriad wildlife laws.(72) According to Pete Bontadelli, former director of California Department of Fish and Game, California has 330 game wardens in the field, which comes out to about 1 warden for every 300,000 acres. A past study showed we would need five times the current warden force to do the job effectively.(73) Bontadelli says their poaching apprehension rate is about 4 percent, which is higher than some states that estimate their violator apprehension rate between 1 and 2 percent. Most violations are not even reported. Canadian wildlife officials hired a man in 1987 to commit a variety of hunting violations, including poaching. Of the 762 crimes, only 8 (1.1 percent) were ever reported.(67)

Poachers also face little chance of severe punishment should they be caught. While Floyd Patterson was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $28,200 and his wife Dawn was fined $14,100 and sentenced to 200 hours of community service,(74) they were the exceptions. Most courts, straining under an overwhelming docket of crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and drug-related crimes tend to look upon wildlife violations as minor infractions. Guilty violators usually walk away with small fines or a suspended sentence. Under such circumstances, poaching has the ominous potential to become yet another obstacle to the cougars survival.

American folklore is filled with stories of the Devil Cat descending from the mountains, announcing its presence with a bloodcurdling scream, and searching for any opportunity to drag helpless victims off into the night. Such stories have all the elements of good fiction. Unfortunately, the shy and secretive nature of the cougar helped to nurture these fables. By the early 1900s a different version of the mountain lion was slowly beginning to emerge. Tracy Storer wrote in 1923 that, It is the general belief among naturalists and well informed laymen that the ... Mountain Lion ... does not ordinarily attack human beings. This belief is strengthened by the experience of many thousands of people who have camped and lived in the range of the mountain lion without being harmed in any way.(75) Early puma researcher Frank Hibben claimed, Man, who upon greater acquaintance with the cougar loses much of his dread of the animal ... [will] find a curious, gentle, and very likeable disposition supplanting the vicious side.(76) Even Teddy Roosevelt changed his view, claiming that it would be no more dangerous to sleep in woods populated with mountain lions than if they were ordinary house cats ... (77)

There is no question that cougars attack people on occasion. The earliest recorded fatal attack in the United States is thought to have been a 58-year-old man living in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1751.(7) The most recent was an 18-year-old jogger killed near Idaho Springs, Colorado, in January 1991.(78) In order to assess the risk lions pose, other important questions must be answered: How frequently do these attacks occur? Why do they occur? What can be done to prevent future attacks?

In an attempt to get some answers, Paul Beier conducted a detailed review and analysis of cougar attacks on humans in the United States and Canada. Only those cases where a cougar bit, clawed, or knocked down a human were considered. Maulings by captive cougars and cases in which a person (e.g., a cougar hunter) deliberately approached or harassed a wild cougar were excluded. Each report was included only if it could be verified by a newspaper or other published account that included statements from medical personnel, law enforcement officers, wildlife officials, or park rangers. Applying this criteria, Beier found that from 1890 to 1990, there were 53 recorded cougar attacks in the United States and Canada. There were 9 fatal attacks resulting in 10 deaths and 44 nonfatal attacks resulting in 48 injuries. The greater number of victims is because there were 2 victims in 5 of the attacks.(79)

Children were found to be more vulnerable than adults, making up 64 percent of the victims. Those 5 to 9 years old were in the highest risk group. Whether or not the child was with an adult also seemed to influence their vulnerability. Of 37 child victims, 35 percent were alone, 43 percent were in groups of children, and 22 percent were accompanied by adults. Adults made up 36 percent of the victims, and the majority (11 of 17), were alone when attacked.(79)

Underweight yearling lions (12 to 23 months old) seem more inclined to attack people, and made up 40 percent of the offending cats. At this age an immature cougar increasingly hunts without help from its mother and by 14 to 24 months of age it moves into a new and often unfamiliar home range.(55, 61) Under these stresses, some yearlings may have difficulty capturing wild prey, writes Beier. The body mass of most yearling attackers suggests that this may be a factor. Two of the underweight yearling attackers had porcupine quills in their throat. In addition, the report shows that half of attacking adult lions were noticeably underweight.

Only two offending cougars were found to have a disease or injury. One was probably rabid and caused two deaths from a single attack near Morgan Hill, California, in 1909. This is the only known case of rabies being transmitted from a cougar to humans; both victims died of the disease, not from the physical injuries.(75) The second diseased cougar had cataracts and was killed near Cowichan Lake, British Columbia, in 1916.

British Columbia accounts for over half (57 percent) all recorded attacks, with the hot spot being Vancouver Island, a 12,408-square-mile island with 300,000 human residents. Twenty of the 53 attacks (38 percent) took place on Vancouver Island, 10 on mainland British Columbia, 5 in Texas, 4 in California, 3 each in Alberta and Colorado, 2 each in Arizona, Montana, and Washington, and 1 each in New Mexico and Nevada. (79) Experts are at a loss to explain why there is such a concentration of attacks on Vancouver Island. Dennis Pemble, a British Columbia wildlife-control officer, thinks the reason is because of the islands lush and heavy cover, which allows the cats to stalk close without being detected.(80) Others have observed that smaller prey, such as porcupines, cottontail rabbits, and opossums are absent from the island. This lack of small prey may prove stressful to yearling lions less proficient at taking deer, and may contribute to attacks on humans.(79)

Across the Georgia Strait, on mainland British Columbia, Pemble is frequently called upon to kill or capture and move mountain lions that have wandered into the suburban neighborhoods of North and West Vancouver, a city of almost a half-million people. Excellent deer and cougar habitat exists only a few miles from the center of the city, and occasionally lions will take a pet dog or cat. Pemble notes that most of the cats he captures in or near Vancouver are young animals or adult males.(81) In July 1991, two children and their teacher were mauled by a lion near the town of Lillooet, about 120 miles northeast of Vancouver.(80) Seidensticker notes that what impresses him is not the number of attacks in the Vancouver area but how really few there have been, given the close proximity of mountain lions and people.(81)

Beier's study further points out that aggressive behavior on the part of intended victims may discourage a lion about to attack or even repel an attack in progress. This differs from the more passive practice of playing dead or curling up in a fetal position during bear attacks. Because the cougar is such a skilled stalker, few victims actually saw the cat before being clawed or bitten. In those, individuals who did have time to react, shouting, swinging a stick, waving arms above the head, or throwing rocks clearly deterred the cougar from carrying out an attack. It also seems advisable not to run. In at least two cases, running appeared to stimulate the cougar to chase and attack the victim. The majority of people with whom pumas actually made physical contact fought back with bare hands, a stick, a knife, a jacket, or a rock. These efforts usually succeeded in driving off the cat. Even children who were alone were able to repel the cougar by fighting back.(79)

In a recent issue of Smithsonian, Seidensticker and Lumpkin speculated as to what would motivate a cougar to attack a human. Like other big cats, mountain lions specialize in killing large mammals with hooves, primarily deer and elk. A human standing up is just not the right shape for a cats prey. An erect persons head and neck are in the wrong place, and most adults are taller than even the largest of the cougars prey species. The position of the neck is most important, for that is where the cat must deliver the killing bite, However, a person bending over, squatting, or running may present a more attractive prey configuration to a cougar. The authors point out that tigers sometimes kill Asian rubber tappers and grass cutters who bend over frequently while working, or people who go out at night and squat to relieve themselves. They suggest that perhaps the Colorado jogger who was recently killed had attracted the cats attention as he ran along, then stopped and crouched down to tie a loose shoelace.(81)

Ironically, the animal that causes more human deaths than any other is not the cougar, but the cougars primary prey: deer.
Ironically, the animal that causes more human deaths than any other is not the cougar, but the cougars primary prey: deer. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, deer were responsible for 130 human fatalities in 1989 alone; most of these were due to collisions between the animals and motor vehicles.(82) (The number of deer killed in these accidents will be discussed in the next section.) But deer are not the only deadly threats to humans. Each year in the United States, domestic dogs kill 18 to 20 people and inflict 200,000 injuries requiring stitches,(83) bee stings are fatal to over 40 individuals, and rattlesnakes inflict 5,000 bites resulting in 12 human deaths.(84) Yet none of these very real hazards seem to stir near the interest of cougar sightings. Writers Dan Bensimhom and Mary Brophy suggest that it would be wise to forget about lions and tigers and bears. Just keep a sharp eye out for Bambi, bees, and mans best friend.(82)

Mountain lion attacks do seem to have increased in the last 20 years. There were more fatal attacks during the last 21 years (6) than during the previous 80 years (4). Authorities generally believe there are two reasons for the increase: mountain lion populations are growing in some areas because states and provinces have changed the cats status from bountied predator to a game species and, in the case of California, have given the puma complete protection. Simultaneously, human populations are growing, along with their use of wildlands, which has increased the potential for encounters.(79)

Shaw observes that there has likely been a marked change in the way people react to seeing a cougar in the wild. Early hunters and ranchers would not have made an official report of a sighting, or even of a threatening incident. The lion was usually shot whether it threatened or not. Modern, unarmed hikers are more likely to report a sighting. When lions show up near more populated areas the threat becomes an official problem, usually with media involvement. Shaw suspects that to some extent, were dealing with an increase in noise, not numbers.(85)

Some people have strongly suggested that attacks can be prevented through regular hunting of cougars; however, there is no evidence that cougars are more likely to attack humans in un-hunted areas.(79) As previously mentioned, 57 percent of all attacks took place in British Columbia, yet hunters and predator control agents kill almost 200 cougars in the province annually.(27) Additionally, the number of attacks in Texas (5) and in Colorado (4), both of which allow hunting, does not differ significantly from California (4), where sport hunting has been illegal since 1972.

In an effort to understand what is behind these increasing encounters between cougars and people, the first Mountain Lion-Human Interaction Symposium and Workshop was held in Denver, Colorado, in April 1991. Hundreds of cougar researchers, wildlife managers, conservationists (including this author), and reporters from across North America gathered to hear the presentation of papers, to participate in discussions, to compare notes, and to talk. One point frequently made was about the increasing urban/wilderness interface. Simply put, this is the growing fringe of urban areas that is pushing deeper into prime mountain lion habitat. Jim Halfpenny, a lion researcher from the University of Colorado, emphasized the need for studies on lions near urban areas. Dennis Pemble from British Columbia and several wildlife officers from Colorado Department of Wildlife spoke at length about having to increasingly respond to reported lions in suburban areas. By the end of the three-day conference it was clear that not much was known about lion behavior and encounters; however, there seemed to be agreement on one point: there is an important need to educate the public about cougars and how to live with them.

Recent events in southern California may portend what could happen if wildlife and land managers do not take an aggressive approach to educating the public about mountain lions. In 1986, two children were mauled by cougars within a few months of each other in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, east of San Juan Capistrano. The attacks were the first in California since 1909. In August 1991, the parents of the first child won a lawsuit against Orange County, which has jurisdiction over the park, and were awarded $2 million.(86) While the victims lawyer claimed the county had been negligent in warning visitors about lions in the park, the case has ominous implications for resource agencies being held liable for the behavior of wildlife. Orange County plans to appeal the case, but the second victim is waiting in the wings with another lawsuit. Sadly, in August 1992, the Orange County Board of Supervisors banned all children under the age of 18 from Caspers Wilderness Park.(87)

When our ancestors first set foot in New England they beheld magnificent, primeval forests that would have rivaled today's few remaining old-growth forests in the Northwest. Huge, old trees, stately white pines 200 feet or more in height, hemlocks, maples, beeches, and birches thrived among a richly diverse community of trees and shrubs, Trees of different heights and an extraordinary mix of species created an equally varied and rich range of opportunities for birds, mammals, and all other fauna. Through this paradise trod the catamount, or eastern panther, hunting the abundant white-tailed deer.(88)

Within a mere 200 to 300 years it was all gone the forests and the wildlife. Colonial land clearing and burning for settlements was only the beginning. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most forests had been cut over two or three times, exploited for lumber, pulp, fuel, charcoal, potash, tannin, pitch, and ship stores. Market hunting, along with ongoing, unregulated hunting and trapping, resulted in the astonishing scarcity of many game species (notably deer) by the late 1700s. All predators and any animal with a marketable hide were threatened or locally exterminated by 1900. The panther, eastern timber wolf, wolverine, pine martin, fisher, and even the beaver disappeared completely.(88)

The cougar survives in western North America primarily because of 700 million acres set aside as public land. Maurice Hornocker acknowledges the importance of this habitat and credits the Wilderness Act of 1964 as an example of legislation beneficial to cougars. While the national forests, national parks, wildlife refuges, and other state and federal lands provide a measure of protection, loss of critical habitat is still the greatest single threat to wildlife and the cougar is no exception.

Urban, residential, and agricultural development encroaches on cougar habitat throughout North America. In Colorado, the growing urban corridor that extends along the eastern shoulder of the Rocky Mountains, from Boulder south to Denver and Colorado Springs, presses in on the margins of cougar country. Rampant growth on Florida's coasts is squeezing the Everglades on both sides and threatening the few remaining panthers. The urban sprawl of Tucson and other communities is adjacent to some of Arizona's densest cougar populations, which are located in the southeast corner of the state. Since 1945, California has lost over 5 million acres of wildlife habitat and, from 1948 to 1990, the states human population rose from 9.6 million to 30 million. New residents have a penchant for settling in the brushy chaparral country of the western Sierra Nevada and in the coastal mountains. Both areas are prime mountain lion habitat. San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area all have adjacent mountain lion populations.

As the stress of urban living begins to take its toll, more and more people seek to escape, finding a temporary refuge in the public lands. Many of the growing cities in the West provide easy access to nearby national parks, national forests, and other public lands, and annual visitation to Americas national parks now exceeds 260 million a year. Increasing numbers of visitors backpack in the most remote wilderness areas that are home to the cougar.

The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administer the public lands under a policy of multiple use. This allows such activities as logging, mining, livestock grazing, and recreational uses such as hunting, off-road vehicles, and snowmobiles. Increased logging and mining operations mean more roads, which further subdivides valuable wildlife habitat. Cougar research in southern Utah and northern Arizona showed that the cats tend to avoid areas of high road densities and recent clear cuts.(89) Extensive dirt road networks in an area also make cougars more vulnerable to hunting. Dan Barnhurst believes that road closures would be very effective in limiting the number of cougars killed during a hunting season and could be used for specific goals such as discouraging hunting in a drainage known to be occupied by a female and kittens. He further states, Since increased road access increases cougar vulnerability, the potential impact on the cougar population should be considered in the environmental impact statement of any planned projects that include construction of new roads (i.e., timber sales and fossil fuels or mineral exploration).(58)

Paved roads are probably the most efficient wildlife slaughtering mechanisms ever devised, Each year, millions of wild animals are killed on Americas highways. The California Department of Transportation estimates that automobiles kill almost 20,000 mule deer each year, a number equal to deer killed by hunters annually.(90) The toll these collisions have on human life was mentioned in the previous section. When combined with development, highways pose a triple threat to wildlife: as development reduces the amount of available habitat and squeezes remaining wildlife into smaller and more isolated pockets, high-speed traffic on larger and wider highways kills more and more of the remaining population.(91) Imagine the risk a mountain lion faces in attempting to cross an eight-lane interstate freeway. Of the 32 cougars Paul Beier has collared in the Santa Ana Mountains of southern California, nine have been hit by cars. Only two survived.(92)

In the long run, these habitat fragmenting forces may be more degrading to North Americas wildlife population than actual loss of habitat acreage, says Larry Harris, a professor at the University of Florida. According to Harris, habitat fragmentation results in four major consequences for wildlife:

  1.  Loss of area-sensitive species, animals whose existence and successful reproduction depend on the size of the habitat area in which they occur. The cougar, bobcat, and black bear fall into this category.

  2. Large species that are highly mobile and occur at low densities under the best of conditions are lost. Again, the cougar is representative.

  3. When coupled with the loss of large native carnivores, fragmented and human-altered landscapes (providing artificial sources of food and shelter) become dominated by exotic or already common species.

  4. Inbreeding begins to occur in isolated populations of low density, such as the endangered Florida panther.(91)

The cougar is an area-sensitive species, requiring a home range so great as to demand large areas for sustenance. Without a sufficiently large territory it cannot find sufficient food or freely interbreed. Lack of available mates leads to inbreeding, which leads to losses of libido, fertility, and reproduction.(93)

Preservation of large tracts of natural land certainly seems to be the solution. But how big is big enough? Even our largest national parks are losing species. William Newmark of the University of Michigan has surveyed the history of local extinctions of mammals in national parks of western North America and has made a startling discovery. Since 14 western parks were established, Newmark documented 44 local extinctions among carnivores, ungulates, hares, and rabbits, the most commonly documented species. The main problem appears to be that even our largest parks are too small.(94)

Working with the isolated population of cougars in Santa Ana Mountains, Paul Beier has estimated minimum habitat areas for cougars using a computer model. According to his findings, if a population is confined to a small area and no immigration of transient lions is possible, the habitat area must be 620 - 1,370 square miles in size for the population to survive 100 years. Beier cautions that the minimum size is based on an optimistic estimate of lion density. For isolated populations to survive longer than 100 years would require constant monitoring and possible translocation of lions from other populations. For areas smaller than 620 square miles, extinction of the population is almost inevitable. However, if as few as 1 to 4 animals per decade could immigrate into a small population, the probability of the population surviving improves greatly. Thus a corridor for immigration would benefit a small population in an area where further loss of habitat will occur.(95)

Tying isolated tracts of habitat together with movement or conservation corridors is a frequently proposed solution to the rampant habitat fragmentation currently taking place. Larry Harris, an expert on conservation corridors, states that Our numerous, large wildlife sanctuaries must be made to function as a system, rather than being thought of as islands unto themselves. Physical interconnections of habitat must be developed and safeguarded if the wide-ranging mammals are to survive in perpetuity. In short, we need a system of wildlife conservation corridors to interconnect the many and sometimes large refuges already established.(93) New Mexico lion researcher Linda Sweanor emphasizes the importance of wildlife corridors to cougars: It is apparent that fragmented habitat may only support lions on a long-term basis if individuals are allowed to successfully immigrate, hence requiring dispersal from other local populations. To conserve populations of mountain lions over the long term, adequate habitats must be maintained in an effective patchwork composed of relatively large blocks of wildland reserves interconnected by dispersal corridors.(96)

Beier's research has shown that not only are movement corridors important to the cats survival, but the cougar is an ideal species for identification of corridor locations. This is because the cougar is an area-sensitive species dependent on the size of its habitat for existence and successful reproduction. Thus, a movement corridor identified on the basis of cougar use is likely to benefit at least one species. Secondly, a hunting cougar travels an average of 5 1/2 miles per night and as a result generates lots of corridor information in a short time. Collection of comparable information for less wide-ranging species may take years or generations.(95)

Protecting and maintaining large tracts of land is crucial to lions as well as other species.

Protecting and maintaining large tracts of land is crucial to lions as well as other species. The concept of small, isolated areas of habitat connected by movement corridors has a lot of potential, but is still a largely untested theory and should not be considered an alternative to major habitat acquisition. Wildlife corridors will likely prove most valuable in mitigating the effects of a badly fragmented landscape where further loss of wildlife habitat will occur.

Though our past record of wildlife habitat protection is poor, some recent events give cause for hope. First of all, in June 1990, the people of California passed the Wildlife Protection Act of 1990 (Proposition 117). Proposition 117 prohibits trophy hunting of mountain lions, tightens regulations on protection of livestock from lions, and requires the state to spend $30 million annually for the next 30 years to protect wildlife habitat in California, In all, 57,761 acres of wildlife habitat were acquired in the first year under the provisions of this new law. We are proud to have helped in writing and passing Proposition 117, said Mark J. Palmer, Conservation Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation. Many exciting natural areas have now been permanently protected by the state for all people to enjoy. Endangered species, mountain lions, deer, wetlands, and riparian (streamside) zones have all benefited from this landmark new law.(97)

Officials in northern Florida are attempting to purchase tracts of land in an effort to create conservation corridors. The recent protective designation of Pinhook Swamp creates a strategic link between the much larger Osceola National Forest and Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Now the area encompasses sufficient prime habitat that it could be considered as a possible site for the reintroduction of the Florida panther.(91)

In Los Angeles, efforts are underway to protect a wildlife corridor connecting the isolated Santa Monica Mountains with the inland wilderness in Angeles and Los Padres national forests. The corridor, a narrowing swath of land, acts as a crucial habitat link for animals to replenish populations in the urban parklands. Even here, adjacent to the second-largest urban area in the United States, experts estimate a small population of less than 10 cougars survive.(98)

Finally, the northeastern woods are coming back. Forest ecologist Susan Morse, who makes her home in Vermont, explains what is happening: Today, we are literally watching the land rebuild itself and much of our former wildlife is returning, some with our help of course. This is true in varying degrees throughout the Northeast, but it is especially pronounced in northern New England where human population pressures have not been felt fur many decades. Now you can see beaver ponds strung like pearls between clean, flowing streams. Moose, deer, bear, bobcat, river otter, fisher, and fox have returned, along with the coyote, a newcomer to this region. [Some believe the eastern panther itself is back.] New plant growth is slowly repairing what was a ravaged land a mere 80 years ago. Its our second chance at paradise.(88)

Unfortunately, the comeback of the northeastern forests is facing a new threat. Over 85 percent of the roughly 26 million acres of forest land are privately held, mostly by a dozen companies, families, and trusts. Population growth, second-home development, massive clear cutting, and pressures from Wall Street on longtime owners to sell are raising the specter of subdividing the wilderness. Increasingly, the land has less value as timberland than as house lots. In the current depressed economy neither environmental groups nor the federal government has taken any concrete steps towards preservation.(99) This too is unfortunate for, as Susan Morse points out, It will never get any cheaper or easier to take care of habitat and wildlife than now.(88) Without protective action, this second paradise could become paradise lost again.

Cougars are secretive, solitary, and highly mobile carnivores.

As has been discussed, cougars are secretive, solitary, and highly mobile carnivores that occur in low densities and roam enormous tracts of wilderness. For decades, these characteristics have made the species extremely difficult to research. The only sources of information about mountain lion populations were observations made and the carcasses collected by professional hunters. Jay Bruce, California's official lion hunter from 1914 to 1942, was one of the first to record anatomical measurements of lions and estimate their home range and population sizes. Not surprisingly, his observations always showed the need for a state-supported lion hunter.(1)

Frank C. Hibben was probably the first biologist to enter the cougars domain and attempt a scientific examination. He spent a year (19341935) accompanying lion hunters throughout New Mexico and Arizona and analyzed the stomach contents of the cougars they killed. Hibbens findings showed deer were the preferred prey and that livestock appeared in only 2 percent of the lions examined. He also considered attaching metal tags to the ears of some lions to learn something of their movements, but soon abandoned the idea. [I]t was feared that this would raise too much opposition with cattle and game interests.(76)

In 1946, Stanley P. Young and Edward A. Goldman, biologists with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote The Puma: Mysterious American Cat, the most comprehensive summary of knowledge on cougars up to that time. The book was based primarily on the records of federal trappers working in the West.(7) During the next 15 years, researcher W. Leslie Robinette continued to examine the cougars food habits in Nevada and Utah, again relying primarily on the stomach contents of lions killed by federal and private hunters. He also wrote about cougar productivity and life history.(100, 101)

The first structured field study of mountain lions was conducted by Maurice Hornocker in the Idaho Primitive Area (now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness) in the mid-1960s. Working with veteran lion hunter Wilbur Wiles, Hornocker tracked and treed cougars with dogs, then sedated them with newly developed drugs administered through darts fired from an air rifle. They tracked, treed, weighed, measured, photographed, released, and recaptured dozens of the big cats through several bitter-cold Idaho winters. Hornocker's work was the first ever to use marked mountain lions to document territoriality in any cat species. He was first to recognize and describe the role of transient individuals, as opposed to full-time residents in a population, and the ways in which such transients may recolonize adjacent areas. Further, his analysis of the effect of cougar predation on elk and deer populations is regarded as classic.(62, 102)

In the early 1970s, Hornocker and Wiles were joined by researchers John Seidensticker and John Messick. Several of the cougars in the study area were fitted with collars so their movements could be monitored. The radio telemetry work provided important information on the social organization of the lions in the Idaho Primitive Area. It also contributed to population estimates, sex, age, reproductive status, and population health data.(61)

Additional studies followed as other researchers adopted Hornocker and Seidensticker's methods and soon more pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Cougar research has been conducted in every western state as well as Florida, Alberta, and British Columbia. Harley Shaws work in Arizona contributed valuable information on livestock depredation and the tracking of lions. Fred Lindzey coordinated the team of biologists on the 10-year Boulder-Escalante Cougar Project in southern Utah, which provided important data on the cats food habits, habitat use, and response to hunting. Canadian researchers Martin Jalkotsy and Ian Ross are finishing up another 10-year study in Alberta, and Paul Beier's work in southern California may help save a threatened population of pumas from rampant habitat loss. In Florida, researchers such as David Maehr, Bass, and Chris Belden are fighting to save the endangered panther.

Today, as founder and director of the Wildlife Research Institute, Hornocker and his hand-picked teams of biologists are engaged in a 10-year study of cougars and their prey in the desert environment of New Mexico and a comprehensive ecological study of cougars in Yellowstone National Park.(103) (Both of these studies were mentioned previously.) Hornocker's almost 30 years of experience studying different cougar populations in a variety of habitats provides valuable insight into the variability of lion behavior.

Though many questions have been answered, many questions remain. Information is lacking in a large portion of the cougars range, particularly in Mexico and Central and South America. Wildlife managers and researchers still search for better ways to census and estimate population sizes, better sexing and aging techniques, ways to estimate population growth, ways to determine the impact of hunting on populations, and nonlethal ways to reduce livestock depredation. In many cases, basic survival information such as the size of populations, the size of habitats, and the number of kittens that survive to adulthood is lacking.

In 1988, Lynne Trulio, an ecologist formerly with the Mountain Lion Foundation, conducted a survey of 30 mountain lion experts throughout the United States and Canada, gathering the opinions of experts on research methods and perhaps helping guide scientists as they design their studies. Trulio concluded: Respondents listed the three primary problems with research today as funding, study length/intensity, and methodology problems. These problems all impede the understanding of mountain lions and prevent us from addressing the threats which face this species. (104)

Allen Anderson, in his comprehensive review of literature on the mountain lion, made the following recommendations regarding research needs: Aside from the diet and certain variables of reproductive biology, it is not possible to generalize on any aspect of puma biology. Thus, research is needed on all aspects. However, I believe research having a direct bearing on the welfare of puma should receive first priority. Since sport hunting is the major and only controllable source of recorded puma mortality, I suggest research on the effects of sport hunting on specific puma populations should receive that priority. Second priority should be concerned with ... census and aging techniques....(105)

Few research studies have monitored cougar populations over periods longer than a few years, and experts are reluctant to apply findings to cougar populations in different areas, given the cats recognized adaptability and subsequent behavioral variation. Lack of standardized research methods make it difficult for researchers to share and apply information. As a result, wildlife administrators too frequently face the task of designing cougar management programs based on research data that is both scant and questionable.

It is Aldo Leopold's 1933 book, Game Management, that is generally recognized as the birth of the science of game management,(106) though many of its professionals acknowledge that the discipline is still so young that it is more an art than a science. Early game-management philosophy was similar to that of agriculture, and in many ways is still practiced today. Killing of game is a harvest and a population of animals a crop. The most common approach in most agencies responsible for game management is a technique called sustained-yield harvesting. Ordinarily, this involves killing a surplus portion of a population at a rate that balances the productivity in that population.(40) Since almost all game managers depend on hunting license purchases as their primary source of revenue, the focus of management is usually on maximizing populations for the benefit of hunters. As a result, the partnership between the hunting community and game managers has a long tradition, and the influence of the hunting community has on game management practices is substantial, In many cases game populations are not managed by hunting, as is so often claimed; rather, populations are managed for hunting. Under such circumstances, politics frequently play a bigger role in management decisions than does biology.

Today, the cougar is trapped in the crossfire of conflicting management goals. Management goals may vary from the reestablishment of viable populations in their former range, as found in the Florida Panther Recovery Plan, to the complexity of maintaining viable cougar populations while providing hunting opportunities and reducing livestock losses(41) in Idaho, to complete protection of the cougar in California. While the wildlife management responsibility of most agencies ends at the state line, lions frequently cross them. A protected cougar in California that crosses into Nevada becomes a game animal. Yet, there is little coordination in management or research between states or provinces. Agencies even maintain their records differently. (For instance, collecting and reconciling the sport-hunting statistics for this book was a long and arduous task.)

There is little evidence that sport hunting is of any benefit to cougar populations.

There is little evidence that sport hunting is of any benefit to cougar populations. Nor does hunting protect deer herds, decrease depredation, or reduce the risk of attacks on people. Under such circumstances hunting advocates find themselves in the position of trying to prove sport hunting does not harm lion populations. The biological jury is still out on this question, but considering our past record in predator management it seems wise to err to the side of caution. A mountain lions hide is of little value and its meat is rarely eaten. The primary justification for hunting mountain lions is because hunters want to collect a trophy.

However, in a national survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 80 percent of the American people disapproved of trophy hunting.(107) Former California Governor George Deukmejian, the California Fish and Game Commission, and the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) all underestimated this change in attitude toward wildlife, particularly mountain lions. In 1985, Deukmejian vetoed a hunting moratorium on mountain lions that had been in place since 1972. The commission and DFG subsequently recommended a sport hunt. A coalition of conservation groups were able to stop the hunt for five years through court action. But the most dramatic public statement came on June 6, 1990, when the people of California approved ballot initiative Proposition 117 which permanently banned mountain lion hunting in the state.

Increasing environmental awareness, concern over loss of habitat, and evolving attitudes toward animals has a new generation of wildlife biologists advocating a shift from game management to wildlife management. A sense of profound change pervades the wildlife management field today, writes Stephen R. Kellert.(108) Various indicators suggest that basic shifts have occurred in American attitudes and recreational uses of wildlife. These changes have been reflected, for example, in a series of studies of American attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors toward wildlife(107, 109, 110) as well as in the findings of the 1980 National hunting, fishing, and wildlife-related recreation survey,(111) which estimated that a remarkable $40 billion [is] spent on all forms of wildlife recreation, including $14.8 billion on nonconsumptive wildlife use. Nonconsumptive wildlife use includes such activities as birdwatching, visits to zoos or museums, scientific study, or photography.(107)

Many state wildlife agencies are being called upon to expand their responsibilities beyond traditional game management into such areas as nongame management, nature education, and environmental protection and mitigation. There are those who feel wildlife agencies should be spending more time managing the 90 percent of animal species that are not hunted, as well as acquiring and protecting critical habitat for nongame and game. Unfortunately, these new demands come at a time of tight budgets and declining revenues from hunting and fishing licenses, revenues that provide a large portion of the operating capital for many state wildlife agencies.

Nowhere is this dilemma better represented than in California. A recent study of the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) by the Legislative Analysts Office(112) made the following observation: DFG historically has provided services and programs primarily for those that use or consume the states wildlife and natural habitat resource, such as individuals who hunt and fish. As Californias population has grown, leading to increasing urbanization, this traditional constituency group of the DFG has diminished steadily. Meanwhile, the responsibilities of the DFG relating to general habitat protection and endangered species protection have increased, requiring the DFG to expand services and programs that protect the overall resource base. What is lacking, however, is a clear focus on exactly what the DFGs relative priorities are.... The report makes a number of recommendations to the State Legislature to resolve ongoing problems within DFG. At the top of the list is: Determine the primary mission of the department so that conflicts between programs focused on resource use and programs focused on resource protection can be resolved.(112)

Our current wildlife habitat crisis makes it imperative that we also shift our management emphasis from species to spaces.

Our current wildlife habitat crisis makes it imperative that we also shift our management emphasis from species to spaces. For instance, few cougar management programs are coordinated with deer management, yet deer are the primary food source for the cats and suffer the same consequences of habitat loss. The future of both species is irrevocably linked, while at the same time their interactions are poorly understood. The extensive data being assembled by scientists about mule deer could prove valuable in cougar management as well. Detailed maps of the summer and winter ranges of migratory deer herds could provide a good template for preliminary identification of cougar habitat. Inventories of preferred forage for deer and the location of kills made by cougars could add to the limited information available on the favored stalking cover of the big cats. Such integrated management would be beneficial to the many other plant and animal species found within deer and mountain lion habitat.

In a 1983 report to the New Mexico State Legislature, Wain Evans, assistant director of the State Game and Fish Department, recommended that the best approach to cougar management was to allow populations to stabilize and to reimburse ranchers for the few losses to cats. Evans states in his report that The cougars biology render their populations uniquely unsusceptible to most forms of wildlife management. Efforts to reduce depredations on livestock and wildlife through cougar hunting and control on problem areas have failed. While of biological origin, depredations of livestock are essentially a political concern. Cougar management should recognize that present know-how and technologies are not sufficient to artificially calibrate cougar populations short of extirpation. Management should take advantage of the cougars self-limiting potential by allowing development of stable social structures over most of the occupied range ... a system of reimbursing ranchers for at least part of their loss should be developed.(32)

It is time wildlife managers look to the cougar as more than a revenue-generating game animal or a pest that occasionally preys on livestock. Kellert reminds us that lf the wildlife profession is to avoid increasing isolation from the millions of Americans primarily interested in non-game wildlife, dramatic changes in traditional programs will be required,(108) As the wildlife managers constituency expands and diversifies, he can expect management decisions to be subject to even greater scrutiny. Fred Lindzey points out that, It is easier to quantify the dollar value of livestock losses than the recreational and esthetics values associated with mountain lions. He warns that management programs that provide for sport hunting and the killing of cougars to protect livestock will be exposed to increasing scrutiny in the future, and that Management agencies must be prepared to document that such removals will not result in a loss of the population.(41)

Finally, coexistence with cougars is possible, but it requires changing our attitude toward the wild animals that share our landscape. Living in cougar country poses some risk, but its a manageable one. Part of Florida's success in bringing the alligator back from the brink of extinction was an aggressive public education campaign about the importance of making room for wildlife. Both the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have produced excellent brochures on how to live with mountain lions, and the Mountain Lion Foundation works hard to get the facts out about cougars. Renowned puma biologist Stanley Young once said, The almost universal fear of the puma is based mainly on its mysterious ways, size, and power to do harm, not on its aggressiveness, for as a rule it is notoriously timid in relation to man.(7) Perhaps its time for man to give a little.


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  112. Hill, E.G. 1991. A review of the Department of Fish and Game: Issues and options for improving its performance. Legislative Analyst's Office. Sacramento, California. 3 September, 1991.

* Cougar The American Lion Line Illustrations Copyright (1992-2009) by Linnea Fronce

Chapter Index to Cougar: The American Lion

Written by Kevin Hansen in association with the Mountain Lion Foundation.

  • back of lion's head.

    Chapter 1: The Consummate Cat

    Start off by reading about the history of the cougar including the evolution of native cat species, the two dozen or so subspecies of cougars and their general appearance. Learn about their discovery in the western hemisphere by early explorers and the many names they have been given by different cultures.

  • Mother lion carrying kitten in mouth.

    Chapter 2: The Cycle of Life

    Beginning from birth, this chapter covers the life span of a cougar. A dependent kitten will mature in about two years, disperse off to establish its own home range, breed with others in neighboring ranges, and perhaps live to ten years of age. Cougars struggle mightily to survive in the face of active threats, which have greater or lesser impact depending upon their stage of life.

  • Lion peering out from overhanging cave entrance.

    Chapter 3: Cougars at Home

    Although cougars are adaptable and can survive any where that has cover and large prey, human hunting has limited them to the western portion in North America. The size and overlap of an individual's home range depends on its age and sex, and a cougar will use markings to define the borders. Get an in-depth look at their population dynamics and discover how far they will travel to find food.

  • Adult lion peering out from brush.

    Chapter 4: An Almost Perfect Predator

    A mountain lion's keen senses, muscular agility, and ability to adapt to almost any landscape and prey make it a successful hunter. Their walking stride, retractable claws and powerful jaw allow them to sneak through bushes undetected and quickly take down prey. Predators play an important role in the health of prey populations and studies have shown they do not significantly reduce the number of deer and elk in a region.

  • Kitten looking out from underneath a car.

    Chapter 5: Cougars and Humans

    Cougars were admired by many Native American cultures, and commonly found in their spiritual beliefs and folklore. But when early European explorers arrived, cougars were seen as a threat and competition. From the late 1600's to mid 1900's, bounties were often paid to anyone who killed a cougar. As ranching increased so did predator control, and then along with sport hunting, cougars were wiped out in most of the United States.